Group of people making "stop" hand gesture.
Reducing sexual harassment in the sciences requires improving the rules and also changing the culture, according to expert testimony. Credit: RapidEye/E+/Getty Images

A congressional panel yesterday heard testimonies about the impact of and fight against sexual harassment in the sciences. Four women prominent and successful in their fields spoke about the need to reform not just the laws but also a harmful culture that considers such behaviors permissible and fosters systemic inequity.

The entire scientific community, especially those in leadership positions, must strive to change a culture that treats harassment as commonplace.

“We talk a lot about getting more women in the sciences,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), but “we need to be able to keep them there when they get there.” Bonamici sits on the Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which held the hearing.

According to the witnesses, antiharassment policies must grow more comprehensive and include more input from experts; findings and procedures require greater transparency, and violations must provoke tangible consequences. Overall, the entire scientific community, especially those in leadership positions, must strive to change a culture that treats harassment as commonplace, they said.

“We cannot afford to lose another brilliant scientist because she did not feel safe in her lab,” said Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), ranking member of the subcommittee.

Clarity, Transparency, and Informed Policy Making

No standard harassment policy prevails at American universities and research institutions, nor is there a consistent definition of what actions constitute harassment, some witnesses noted.

The four witnesses who testified before the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology on 27 February. From left to right are Rhonda Davis, Kathryn Clancy, Kristina Larsen, and Chris McEntee. Credit: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Kathryn Clancy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explained that antiharassment policies need to be explicit about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, easily accessible to all, and taught as part of standard workplace training. They also need to address the problems actually occurring in that workplace, said Clancy, who conducts research on workplace climate in the sciences.

“We need to do a lot more of the hard work, not just slapping on a policy and saying ‘OK, sexual harassment is fixed,’” Clancy said. Scientific institutions should ask themselves, “What is the culture at our organization, and is this the culture that we want?” she added.

Attorney Kristina Larsen told the subcommittee that many antiharassment policies focus mainly on legality and the potential for litigation, instead of addressing more prevalent, but technically legal, smaller harassments. Larsen represents women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields who are facing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

“Don’t write a zero-tolerance policy until you’re really clear on what you’re not tolerating,” she advised in her testimony. We need to base policies on “the conduct that is actually damaging” to victims and not worry “about whether it is legal or illegal under the law,” she said.

Fieldwork Amplifies Problems

Field research conducted far from a formal academic environment increases the need to have clear and explicit ethical policies and codes of conduct, said Chris McEntee, executive director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, publisher of Eos.

“A very small number of people, who were actually harassed, even knew what the reporting mechanism was” at field sites.

“The Earth and space sciences typically involve remote field settings,” she noted in her testimony. “When coupled with a male-dominated environment and power structure, these situations can amplify the problem.”

Clancy highlighted that field research brings added uncertainty about antiharassment policies. “In field sciences, we found that the majority of our respondents were not aware of a code of conduct or sexual harassment policy for their field site. And [only] a very small number of people, who were actually harassed, even knew what the reporting mechanism was,” she said.

Principal investigators, supervisors, and field site directors should develop and enforce implicit and explicit codes of conduct and bear responsibility for them, she added.

Making Consequences for Harassers Real

Witnesses and members of Congress at the hearing lauded the National Science Foundation (NSF) for its 8 February decision requiring grant-seeking universities to maintain clear antiharassment policies and to report policy violations to NSF.

“No taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a university researcher who engages in harassment and inappropriate behavior toward a colleague or student under their charge,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said during yesterday’s hearing.

Subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Comstock (left) speaks with witness Rhonda Davis of NSF (right) after the hearing. Credit: Kimberly M. S. Cartier

Rhonda Davis, head of NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, who also testified at the hearing, noted that NSF’s new guidelines were prompted by the fact that American universities do not have a universal ethics policy regarding sexual or other types of harassment or any requirement for universities to develop such policies beyond the scope of federal protections, like Title IX.

Consistent and visible enforcement of antiharassment policy will help mitigate the harassment “epidemic,” said Clancy, citing her research. “Across workplaces, it’s consistent that if you have consequences…you do see less harassment in those workplaces,” she explained.

The fear of backlash for reporting harassment falls on the targets of harassment, not the harassers, said McEntee, who encouraged sanctions against harassers for violating ethics policies.

“People don’t change because they feel the light; people change because they feel the heat.”

“People don’t change because they feel the light; people change because they feel the heat,” said Larsen. “And there is no heat in academics….We have a problem with enforcement.”

Davis said that NSF’s new policy includes independent and anonymous avenues for anyone, including students, to report harassment directly to NSF, which may reduce the fear of backlash.

Culture Change Needed

All of the witnesses called for culture change in the scientific community, where, they said, harassment is allowed to persist and is deemed tolerable.

“Let’s move away from a culture of compliance and towards a culture of change,” Clancy said, by “focusing on the behaviors we want to see.”

“I see you, and I think of you, and I thank you for getting up every day, and I derive strength from you.”

Clancy and McEntee called for more well informed training in how to recognize harassing and harmful behavior and how to safely diffuse a situation from the outside. This type of bystander intervention, especially from those in leadership positions, they explained, would have a twofold effect: first, showing the harasser that such behavior is not acceptable or tolerated in the workplace and, second, demonstrating that vulnerable persons are visible, heard, and supported by those with the power to effect change.

Speaking directly to victims of sexual harassment, Clancy added, “I see you, and I think of you, and I thank you for getting up every day, and I derive strength from you. I hope you know how much you mean to those of us who do this work.”

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), News Writing and Production Intern


Cartier, K. M. S. (2018), House science subcommittee hearing targets sexual harassment, Eos, 99, Published on 28 February 2018.

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